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Refugee Week 2006 – Adelaide

Race Race Discrimination

“When do I stop being a refugee?”

The
Journey of Citizenship and Community
Inclusiveness
A
Vision of Multiculturalism and an inclusive Australian
society

Speech by Tom Calma, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Refugee
Week 2006 –
Adelaide
18
October 2006 


I
wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of Adelaide, the Kaurna people. I
also wish to commend the organisers of this timely conference and acknowledge
our distinguished
guests.

Ladies
and gentlemen

In the
last few weeks we’ve been asked as members of the public, as community
workers and human rights advocates to reconsider some aspects of our formal
citizenship requirements by the federal
government.

The
release of the discussion paper on the matter of Australian citizenship has
generated nation wide debate. Today against this background, I wish to take up
the opportunity to address issues concerning citizenship, community and
belonging in Australia. My intention here is not to focus on the discussion
paper itself but rather to try to delineate some broader issues regarding the
inclusive capacity of our society, the potentials that the makeup of our society
generates and the tasks ahead of us as a nation in order to realize and
actualize a fair and just Australia.

War,
colonisation and lately globalisation have left us with many legacies, one of
them the legacy of refugees. As the late prominent writer Edward Saeed says;
our age is the ‘age of the refugee, the displaced person and mass
immigration’.

Here in
Australia we are still dealing with the effects of those legacies. In my
position as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Commissioner and national Race Discrimination Commissioner I endeavour to
address the concerns, the rights and the needs of two categories of people who
have been affected most by the ruthlessness of colonisation, the cruelty of wars
and the incursion of globalisation. In my position I have the privilege to work
with those who are displaced and dispossessed in their land and those who were
displaced and dispossessed of their
lands.

The
Indigenous population of this land through the legacy of colonisation are not
just displaced of their land but also torn from their very way of being.
Children taken away from families, whole tribes deprived from speaking their
tongue, and living their culture. In someway, colonisation has turned our
Indigenous peoples into refugees in their own land. This is definitely one of
the most excruciating fates; one that cannot be simply expressed in language or
codified in legislation.

This land
also seems to be the destination of many people who are fleeing the unbearable
realities of wars and deprivations around the world. For over fifty years now,
Australia has become the place of refuge for many displaced peoples, who most
often left a whole world behind and move to a new world populated with
languages, traditions, skills and new ways of living that are foreign to their
own.

Before
proceeding further, I want to clarify two things. First by referring to
Indigenous peoples’ experiences and refugees’ experiences I have no
doubt that we are talking about two separate domains which cannot be reduced or
collapsed into each other. Secondly, nevertheless, rethinking human
experiences in relation to each other widens the horizon and the scope of our
debate.

It is not
an overstatement to say that our very progress as a nation, with a distinct and
assured sense of itself, hinges on our ability to address both Indigenous’
reconciliation and the integration of refugees and migrants into our society.
But it seems to me that so far, in the current climate, we have not got it
right. The process of reconciliation is incomplete and we are not doing enough
to progress it. And our treatment of refugees and migrants is returning to
simplistic strategies to assimilate newcomers who have, by and large, been
successfully integrating into the community through the versatility of
multiculturalism.

As Petro
Georgiou suggests ‘by any standard, we are an exemplar of unity and
respect for our multicultural diversity. We have brought together peoples of
diverse nations, religions and cultures. Migrants have worked hard and
committed themselves to this country. Through their efforts and initiative
they have profoundly enriched the nation.’ Well said
Petro.

Until
a few weeks ago, this was an article of faith on the part of every politician.
Now we are told we need to make significant policy changes to address weaknesses
in our citizenship laws.

The
final say on citizenship laws is not out yet but I wonder if the suggested law
reform will reshape our exemplary united, yet diverse, society into a less
hospitable and less generous one.

Let us
talk about hospitality as a starting point for thinking about these issues. For
instance, the type of hospitality that underlies the historical and ongoing
process of acknowledging Indigenous rights; or the hospitality involved in
coming to a new land. In these processes we can discern two types of
hospitality; an affirming hospitality and a domineering, bordering on hostile,
hospitality.

This
latter hospitality, by demanding unprovable loyalty, more skills and additional
abilities from certain groups of the community, undermines the possibility of
enjoying equality and having a fair go. This hospitality, which espouses a
permanent state of testing, betrays the act of hospitality itself, rendering
Australia an inhospitable
place.

But
this is just one strand of hospitality and not necessarily the prevailing one.
Think of the “welcome to country” Indigenous traditional owners
extend to all visitors to their lands. This welcome does not demand anything
for itself except as an ethical and respectful practice. This hospitality is
affirmative, not intrusive. Before demanding acknowledgement it bestows
forgiveness. This hospitality simply extends the reach of human generosity.

Also,
across the boundaries of language, in our urban centres and increasingly in
rural areas a new form of hospitality has been developing. Refugees and
migrants might need some language assistance to access services but they
definitely don’t need an overriding language to express and demonstrate
their affiliation with their neighbours, local community and society. A whole
new everyday way of communication, expression and exchange has developed in our
neighbourhoods through gestures which simply ask for human affiliation based on
reciprocity and
respect.

Indeed,
wars, colonisation and globalisation have left us with legacies. But in the act
of overcoming those legacies our society develops generous, welcoming and
reciprocal sensibilities which we need to nurture and
enhance.

In
this situation reciprocity creates the conditions to understand the journey of
the refugee, the quest of Indigenous Australians and the need of some
communities for reassurance. In entering into reciprocal relations, we all must
abandon our comfort zone and step outside of our homes, to care, understand and
engage with others. In doing so we follow the steps of Theodor Adorno, the
German Jewish philosopher who, in his reflection on the great suffering in
Europe says; “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s
home. So it is part of morality to put ourselves in the place of refugees so as
to understand with compassion.”

So, how
can we build on our successful multiculturalism and make Australia an even more
hospitable place?

Let me
give you an account of my understanding of multiculturalism.

In my view
multiculturalism simply reflects upon and responds hospitably to the culturally
diverse world we live in today. It is not a revolution but it has a
revolutionary impact. It has the ability to continuously re-generate society by
opening it up to the enrichment of new cultures introduced by layer upon layer
of migrants and refugees contributing to our national story and how we see
ourselves.

Multiculturalism,
as opposed to a co-existence of mono-cultures, is the source of our
society’s cohesion. It increasingly shelters us from the traps of
‘us & them’ because the ‘us’ in a multicultural
society is an expansive, versatile, diverse group of peoples, languages and
cultures that embrace the affiliations which many of us might have.

In this
context, a policy of permanent testing, through an English test, a values test
and an ‘Australian way of life’ test, as proposed, might have the
negative and opposite effect of allowing the formal process of granting
citizenship to take precedent over the substantial process of becoming
Australian.

I think we
need to closely consider the difference between becoming a citizen and becoming
Australian. One is formal and requires procedural fairness while the other,
substantive, requiring attentiveness, openness, foresight and an embrace of life
or things to come. One involves clearly delineated legal rights and
responsibilities and the other, reciprocity and leadership. One is about
reforming the system to meet the changing realities of our society, the other
about the ongoing identity formation of this
country.

Today,
the question that seems to preoccupy many is how the experiences of refugees add
to our multicultural realities. Referring again to Saeed in his description of
the refugees’ experience, he says

“exile
is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the
unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between the self and
its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is
true that literature and history contains heroic, romantic, glorious, even
triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts
meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of
exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind
forever’.

So
refugees who arrive in this country may come with a sense of loss, dislocation
and sadness but this experience seems not to hinder, but to strengthen their
resolve to ‘overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement’.

On
arrival, the refugee begins the ongoing attempt to rebuild a shattered life and
establish roots through new affiliations and hard work.

My staff,
in their work with different communities, bears witness to this process of
overcoming. For example, throughout the Isma project, the commission heard that
a significant number of Arab and Muslim Australians were feeling fearful,
isolated and vulnerable. These experiences ranged from offensive remarks about
race or religion, to physical violence. They felt singled out on the street, in
shopping centres, in the media, in schools, in the workplace, by police –
in short, everywhere. Muslim women had their hijab pulled off. But these
painful experiences did not stop Iraqi and afghan refugees from re-establishing
their shattered lives in Shepparton in rural Victoria. Parents working hard to
overcome all obstacles to give their sons and daughters a new dignified life
while at the same time contributing immensely to the economy of that
region.

But
isolation and indifference in many cases hinders the refugee’s effort to
integrate. Take the example of a family of African refugees who flew to
Australia with their chronically ill son with a detailed medical file about the
son condition. They were met by a contract caseworker at Sydney airport. They
handed the file over to the officer who transferred them to a dingy flat in
Fairfield, left them on their own and told them to dial 000 in case of
emergency.

Eighteen
hours later, the little boy was in convulsions. The father picked up the phone
and the only thing he could hear was the steady beeping on the other end. He
had never used a phone before. The son died. The father ran into the street
crying for help in his native tongue. Many people rushed to help but it was too
late.

In
this situation, isolation and indifference shattered a shattered life once more,
before it even began. This incident is a clear and stark example of failing to
create a preliminary condition of hospitality and belonging by providing proper
access to resettlement services. To resettle, refugees need to have access to
the means of participating and sharing the benefits of the broader society
including English classes, knowledge of laws and support services.
 

So
what should be done to create the enabling conditions of belonging?

First we
need to decide how to extend hospitality by establishing a human rights based
approach to receiving and integrating refugees into our society. This approach
will continuously remind us that we are committed to fundamental absolute human
rights not just simply limited or qualified rights

Second,
procedural fairness and justice should be the bedrock of all the strategies that
determine a refugee’s status and that aim to integrate refugees into the
community.

Third,
in line with the commitment to fundamental human rights, effective
anti-discrimination legislation and procedures should be developed to combat new
and emerging forms of discrimination and racism.

Fourth, NGOs,
state, local and federal governments have a duty of care for the most
disadvantaged and vulnerable in the community through services and affirmative
actions.

Fifth
as a community, in our interaction with and reaction to refugees, we need to
develop an ethos based on compassion, respect, dignity and a fair go, and
finally;

Laws,
procedures and polices are not in themselves effective without strong affirming
leadership. We need leadership, in different walks of life, that champion human
rights principles, standards and
treaties.

Our
collective legal and moral commitment cannot really be materialized without
reciprocity. As the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Anann unequivocally
declares '....States need carefully thought-out policies for integrating
immigrants who are allowed in. Since both migrants and host societies stand to
benefit from successful integration, both must play their part in making it
happen. It is reasonable for societies to expect those who would become
citizens to share certain basic values, to respect the law of the land, and to
develop fluency in the local language, with assistance if they need
it.'

Our
openness to the resettlement of refugees in our midst is a sign of our
commitment to a future which emphasises our achievements and transcends our
shortcomings.

Let’s
make refugee resettlement a homecoming experience while we keep in mind their
unlimited potential to contribute to our society.

Welcome,
welcome, welcome.

Welcome to
our home, welcome to your home.

 

Last
updated

February 3, 2009

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